On Serving the ‘Dying’ Church

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12 mins read

Institutions, Hospice Nurses, and Midwives

Managing Editor Rev. Ginna Bairby
Managing Editor Rev. Ginna Bairby

This issue of Unbound has been incredibly rich.

We’ve heard about ways that the many churches that comprise the Church universal work together to participate in God’s reign – from the halls of power in Washington, DC and the United Nations to small churches in rural Iowa and a former mill-town in Illinois. We’ve listened to the personal faith journeys of people whose religious identity has been formed by multiple denominations, and we’ve heard the wisdom of those who have been engaged and invested in the ecumenical movement for decades. We’ve heard about the work of institutional ecumenical bodies such as the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches, and we’ve listened to stories from more informal, organic ecumenical spaces such as collegiate ministry, chaplaincy, and even Twitter!

Sometimes – often, really – when we look around at our neighbors, we come to know ourselves better. I’ve certainly experienced this as we’ve examined ecumenism together these last few months. The institutional decline of ecumenical organizations, a subtext beneath many of these articles, and the story explicitly told in some, pretty directly parallels the decline of the mainline denominations that (for the most part) comprise these institutions – including my own beloved Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

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The church that I know is dying, and I am grieving that. And yet, I would venture to ask: Is that necessarily a bad thing?
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As I go about my daily work, I hear it multiple times a week: “The Church is dying!” It’s a fearful, desperate, impassioned cry. It is the cry of a grieving people.

Now, before I go any further in discussing the very real fear – and the truth – behind this declaration, I want to clear something up.

Christmas Pageant in Lima, Peru Photo: Ginna Bairby
Christmas Pageant at a Church in Lima, Peru
Photo: Ginna Bairby

The Church – the Church universal – is not dying. We say that anxiously in the U.S., but it’s a rather naïve and self-centered statement. The white, North American, mainline institutional church that took its present form in the early-to-mid twentieth century may well be dying. It certainly is getting smaller. And I grieve that because I deeply love that expression of Christ’s Church. But when I express my grief by making the claim that “the Church” is dying, I’m refusing to acknowledge many (the majority, actually) of my brothers and sisters in Christ. Talk about narrowing the ecumenical horizon!

The Church in the Global South is not dying; in fact, in many places it is flourishing! Dr. Raimundo Barreto made this point compellingly in his article, calling this new context the era of World Christianity, in which “the great new fact…is no longer the ecumenical movement, per se, but the emergence of a truly worldwide Christianity that is pluricentric, culturally diverse and…has more Christians living in the Southern Hemisphere than in the North.” Even in the U.S., while the mainline expressions of Church decline, many churches, including immigrant churches, are growing and thriving.

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Perhaps the call for those of us who serve ‘dying’ churches is to be both hospice nurses and midwives to these institutions we so love.
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That said, I do understand the fear, the grief, and the reality, behind the cry that “The Church is dying!” As a minister in one of the aforementioned white, North American, mainline, institutional denominations, my particular flavor of Church is on the decline. Membership and money are both steadily dropping, with no sign of changing or slowing down. Whatever form the Church may take in the 21st century, it will likely look very different from the 20th-century model we know.

“Well, she’s one of those millennials,” you may be inclined to say. “They’re all anti-institutional, no appreciation for historical memory. What do you expect?”

pcusa logoBelieve what you will, but I actually love these ‘dying’ institutions – both Presbyterian and ecumenical. Strange as it sounds, I’ve felt called to serve the church in some sort of leadership capacity since I was in grade school. Nearly all of my formal employment has involved serving the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in some capacity, from individual congregations to camps and conference centers to the denominational headquarters where I now work. My resume might as well have a big old watermark of the PC(USA) logo on it (Actually…I would love that. I really love our logo!).

The church that I know is dying, and I am grieving that.

And yet, I would venture to ask: Is that necessarily a bad thing?

Bear with me for a second. Death can be painful and tragic and inexplicable; I will never deny that. But that are also times when death is natural, beautiful, grace-filled. The final step in any life, from an insect to an individual to an institution, will always be death. Furthermore, whether death comes as a tragedy or a blessing, don’t we as people of faith proclaim that death does not have the last word?

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It seems to me that we have forgotten that we are a people of resurrection.
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It seems to me that we have forgotten that we are a people of resurrection.

“The Church (as we know it) is dying!” Well of course it is! Didn’t Jesus tell us, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”? (John 12:24) Didn’t that same Jesus go on to embody the painful process of death and resurrection in his own flesh?

CHURCH 2 PDThe God we worship brings life out of death. We hear Paul sing, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” We see God working these purposes out in nature every day, even in the cosmos and larger systems that we cannot fully comprehend – remember Michelle Bartel’s discussion of “ecumenical chaos”? Do we not worship a God who created the heavens and the earth out of darkness, a formless void, the face of the deep?

When I think about the state of mainline denominations and institutions today, I find myself thinking about two vocations: midwives and hospice nurses.

At one end of life, there’s the midwife (or doctor, or doula, etc.) who waits with the woman giving birth, who hears the newborn baby take their first breath. And at the other end, there’s the hospice nurse that sits with that same person as they take their last breath. As they leave this life and transition into…what?

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While many of us throw up our hands and say, “The Church is dying!,” they stop and listen, both for the rattling of last breaths and the cry of labor pangs.
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Of course that the question, isn’t it? I certainly don’t claim any certain knowledge of the great mystery of death or of what comes after. I’ve read the Scriptures, heard the teachings, learned the science, listened the personal stories, but ultimately none of us has concrete facts about what follows death – both of flesh and blood and of institutions. We may think we know the patterns of institutional decline and transformation, but our cultural, spiritual – even our physical environment – is changing in ways that former generations may not have even begun to envision.

However, I have grown up in the Church, and I have been raised to understand that I belong to a people of resurrection.

Young Hand Holding Old Hand ACSWP ownedPerhaps, then, the call for those of us who serve and participate in ‘dying’ churches is to be both hospice nurses and midwives to these institutions we so love.

Many faithful people are already going about this work. I believe we’ve heard from many of them in this issue of Unbound. People who experience the institution they serve declining and yet do not compromise their faithfulness to dearly held values in the name of prolonging that institution’s life. People who can acknowledge the ‘dying’ church and still boldly go about the work of Kingdom-building in the face of that reality. People who have the courage to nurture the new expressions of the Church being born, who are willing to form partnerships, build coalitions, explore new media and new realities.

These are the hospice nurses of the Church that has been and the midwives of the Church that will be. While many of us throw up our hands and say, “The Church is dying!,” they stop and listen, both for the rattling of last breaths and the cry of labor pangs. If we learn to listen with them, perhaps we’ll hear it too – even the overlap of last breaths and of first ones.

The Church is at the same time dying and being born. Dying and being raised. Great is the mystery of faith.

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Read more articles in this issue, “That They May be One”: Thinking Ecumenically for the 21st Century!

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